Archive | December 2013




One of the things that surprises me time and time again is how we think our brains work and how they actually do.

On many occasions, I find myself convinced that there is a certain way to do things, only to find out that actually that’s the completely wrong way to think about it. For example, I always found it fairly understandable that we can multitask. Well, according to the latest research studies, it’s literally impossible for our brains to handle two tasks at the same time.

Recently, I came across more of these fascinating experiments and ideas that helped a ton to adjust my workflow towards how our brain actually work (instead of how I thought it does).

So here are 10 of the most surprising things our brain does and what we can learn from this information.

1. Your brain does creative work better when you’re tired.

When I explored the science of our body clocks and how they affect our daily routines, I was interested to find that a lot of the way I’d planned my days wasn’t really the best way to go about it. The way we work, in particular, actually has a lot to do with the cycles of our body clocks.

Here’s how it breaks down:

If you’re a morning lark, say, you’ll want to favor those morning hours when you’re feeling more fresh to get your most demanding, analytical work done. Using your brain to solve problems, answer questions and make decisions is best done when you’re at your peak.

For night owls, this is obviously a much later period in the day.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to do creative work, you’ll actually have more luck when you’re more tired and your brain isn’t functioning as efficiently. This sounds crazy, but it actually makes sense when you look at the reasoning behind it. It’s one of the reasons why great ideas often happen in the shower after a long day of work.

If you’re tired, your brain is not as good at filtering out distractions and focusing on a particular task. It’s also a lot less efficient at remembering connections between ideas or concepts. These are both good things when it comes to creative work, since this kind of work requires us to make new connections, be open to new ideas, and think in new ways. So a tired, fuzzy brain is of much more use to us when working on creative projects.

This Scientific American article explains how distractions can actually be a good thing for creative thinking:

Insight problems involve thinking outside the box. This is where susceptibility to “distraction” can be of benefit. At off-peak times we are less focused, and may consider a broader range of information. This wider scope gives us access to more alternatives and diverse interpretations, thus fostering innovation and insight.

2. Stress can change the size of your brain (and make it smaller).

I bet you didn’t know stress is actually the most common cause of changes in brain function. I was surprised to learn this when I looked into how stress affects our brains.

I also found some research that showed signs of brain size decreasing due to stress.

One study used baby monkeys to test the effects of stress on development and long-term mental health. Half the monkeys were cared for by their peers for six months, while the other half remained with their mothers. Afterwards, the monkeys were returned to typical social groups for several months before the researchers scanned their brains.

For the monkeys who had been removed from their mothers and cared for by their peers, areas of their brains related to stress were still enlarged, even after being in normal social conditions for several months.

Although more studies are needed to explore this fully, it’s pretty scary to think that prolonged stress could affect our brains long term.

Another study found that in rats who were exposed to chronic stress, the hippocampuses in their brains actually shrank. The hippocampus is integral to forming memories. It has been debated before whether Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can actually shrink the hippocampus, or people with naturally smaller hippocampuses are just more prone to PTSD. This study could point to the stress being a factor in actually changing the brain.

3. It is literally impossible for our brains to multitask.

Multitasking is something we’ve long been encouraged to practice, but it turns outmultitasking is actually impossible. When we think we’re multitasking, we’re actually context-switching. That is, we’re quickly switching back and forth between different tasks, rather than doing them at the same time.

The book Brain Rules explains how detrimental “multitasking” can be:

Research shows your error rate goes up 50%, and it takes you twice as long to do things.

The problem with multitasking is that we’re splitting our brain’s resources. We’re giving less attention to each task and probably performing worse on all of them:

When the brain tries to do two things at once, it divides and conquers, dedicating one-half of our gray matter to each task.

Here is how this looks in reality. While we try to do both Action A and Action B at the same time, our brain is never handling both simultaneously. Instead, it has to painfully switch back and forth and use important brainpower just to switch:

When our brains handle a single task, the prefrontal cortex plays a big part. Here’s how it helps us achieve a goal or complete a task:

The anterior part of this brain region forms the goal or intention–for example, “I want that cookie”–and the posterior prefrontal cortex talks to the rest of the brain so that your hand reaches toward the cookie jar, and your mind knows whether you have the cookie.

A study in Paris found that when a second task was required, the brains of the study volunteers split up, with each hemisphere working alone on a task. The brain was overloaded by the second task and couldn’t perform at its full capacity, because it needed to split its resources.

When a third task was added, the volunteers’ results plummeted:

The triple-task jugglers consistently forgot one of their tasks. They also made three times as many errors as they did while dual-tasking.

4. Naps improve your brain’s day-to-day performance.

We’re pretty clear on how important sleep is for our brains, but what about naps? It turns out, these short bursts of sleep are actually really useful.

Here are a couple of ways napping can benefit the brain.

Improved memory

In one study, participants memorized illustrated cards to test their memory strength. After memorizing a set of cards, they had a 40-minute break wherein one group napped and the other stayed awake. After the break, both groups were tested on their memory of the cards, and the group that had napped performed better:

Much to the surprise of the researchers, the sleep group performed significantly better, retaining on average 85% of the patterns, compared to 60% for those who had remained awake.

Apparently, napping actually helps our brain to solidify memories:

Research indicates that when a memory is first recorded in the brain–in the hippocampus, to be specific–it’s still “fragile” and easily forgotten, especially if the brain is asked to memorize more things. Napping, it seems, pushes memories to the neocortex, the brain’s “more permanent storage,” preventing them from being “overwritten.”

Let’s look at that in a graph–the people who took a nap, were able to wildly outperform those who didn’t. It’s as though they had a fresh start:

Better learning

Taking a nap also helps to clear information out of your brain’s temporary storage areas, getting it ready for new information to be absorbed. A study from the University of California asked participants to complete a challenging task around midday, which required them to take in a lot of new information. At around 2 p.m., half of the volunteers took a nap while the rest stayed awake.

The really interesting part of this study is not only that at 6 p.m. that night the napping group performed better than those who didn’t take a nap. In fact, the napping group actually performed better than they had earlier in the morning.

What happens in the brain during a nap

Some recent research has found that the right side of the brain is far more active during a nap than the left side, which stays fairly quiet while we’re asleep. Despite the fact that 95% of the population is right-handed, with the left side of their brains being the most dominant, the right side is consistently the more active hemisphere during sleep.

The study’s author, Andrei Medvedev, speculated that the right side of the brain handles ‘housekeeping’ duties while we’re asleep.

So while the left side of your brain takes some time off to relax, the right side is clearing out your temporary storage areas, pushing information into long-term storage and solidifying your memories from the day.

5. Your vision trumps all other senses.

Despite being one of our five main senses, vision seems to take precedence over the others:

Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.

Pictures beat text as well, in part because reading is so inefficient for us. Our brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures, and we have to identify certain features in the letters to be able to read them. That takes time.


In fact, vision is so powerful that the best wine tasters in the world have been known to describe a dyed white wine as a red.

Not only is it surprising that we rely on our vision so much, but it actually isn’t even that good. Take this fact, for instance:

Our brain is doing all this guessing because it doesn’t know where things are. In a three-dimensional world, the light actually falls on our retina in a two-dimensional fashion. So our brain approximates viewable image.

Let’s look at this image. It shows you how much of your brain is dedicated just to vision and how it affects other parts of the brain. It’s a truly staggering amount, compared to any other areas:

6. Introversion and extroversion come from different wiring in the brain.

I just recently realized that introversion and extroversion are not actually related to how outgoing or shy we are, but rather how our brains recharge.

Here’s how the brains of introverts and extroverts differ:

Research has actually found that there is a difference in the brains of extroverted and introverted people in terms of how we process rewards and how our genetic makeup differs. For extroverts, their brains respond more strongly when a gamble pays off. Part of this is simply genetic, but it’s partly the difference of their dopamine systems as well.

An experiment that had people take gambles while in a brain scanner found the following:

When the gambles they took paid off, the more extroverted group showed a stronger response in two crucial brain regions: the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens.

The nucleus accumbens is part of the dopamine system, which affects how we learn and is generally known for motivating us to search for rewards. The difference in the dopamine system in the extrovert’s brain tends to push them towards seeking out novelty, taking risks and enjoying unfamiliar or surprising situations more than others. The amygdala is responsible for processing emotional stimuli, which gives extroverts that rush of excitement when they try something highly stimulating, which might overwhelm an introvert.

More research has actually shown that the difference comes from how introverts and extroverts process stimuli. That is, the stimulation coming into our brains is processed differently, depending on your personality. For extroverts, the pathway is much shorter. It runs through an area where taste, touch, visual, and auditory sensory processing takes place. For introverts, stimuli runs through a long, complicated pathway in areas of the brain associated with remembering, planning, and solving problems.

7. We tend to like people who make mistakes more.

Apparently, making mistakes actually makes us more likable, due to something called the Pratfall Effect.

Kevan Lee recently explained how this works on the Buffer blog:

Those who never make mistakes are perceived as less likable than those who commit the occasional faux pas. Messing up draws people closer to you, makes you more human. Perfection creates distance and an unattractive air of invincibility. Those of us with flaws win every time.

This theory was tested by psychologist Elliot Aronson. In his test, he asked participants to listen to recordings of people answering a quiz. Select recordings included the sound of the person knocking over a cup of coffee. When participants were asked to rate the quizzers on likability, the coffee-spill group came out on top.


So this is why we tend to dislike people who seem perfect. And now we know that making minor mistakes isn’t the worst thing in the world–in fact, it can work in our favor.

8. Meditation can rewire your brain for the better.

Here’s another one that really surprised me. I thought meditation was only good for improving focus and helping me stay calm throughout the day, but it actually has a whole bunch of great benefits.

Here are a few examples.

Less anxiety

This point is pretty technical, but it’s really interesting. The more we meditate, the less anxiety we have, and it turns out this is because we’re actually loosening the connections of particular neural pathways. This sounds bad, but it’s not.

What happens without meditation is that there’s a section of our brains that’s sometimes called the Me Center (it’s technically the medial prefrontal cortex). This is the part that processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences. Normally the neural pathways from the bodily sensation and fear centers of the brain to the Me Center are really strong. When you experience a scary or upsetting sensation, it triggers a strong reaction in your Me Center, making you feel scared and under attack.

Here is how anxiety and agitation decreases with just a 20-minute meditation session:

When we meditate, especially when we are just getting started with meditation, we weaken this neural connection. This means that we don’t react as strongly to sensations that might have once lit up our Me Centers. As we weaken this connection, we simultaneously strengthen the connection between what’s known as our Assessment Center (the part of our brains known for reasoning) and our bodily sensation and fear centers. So when we experience scary or upsetting sensations, we can more easily look at them rationally. Here’s a good example:

For example, when you experience pain, rather than becoming anxious and assuming it means something is wrong with you, you can watch the pain rise and fall without becoming ensnared in a story about what it might mean.

More creativity

Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands studied both focused-attention and open-monitoring meditation to see if there was any improvement in creativity afterwards. They found that people who practiced focused-attention meditation did not show any obvious signs of improvement in the creativity task following their meditation. For those who did open-monitoring meditation, however, they performed better on a task that asked them to come up with new ideas.

Better memory

One of the things meditation has been linked to is improving rapid memory recall.Catherine Kerr, a researcher at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Center found that people who practiced mindful meditation were able to adjust the brain wave that screens out distractions and increase their productivity more quickly that those who did not meditate. She said that this ability to ignore distractions could explain “their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.” This seems to be very similar to the power of being exposed to new situations that will also dramatically improve our memory of things.

Meditation has also been linked to increasing compassion, decreasing stress, improving memory skills, and even increasing the amount of gray matter in the brain.

9. Exercise can reorganize the brain and boost your willpower.

Sure, exercise is good for your body, but what about your brain? Well apparentlythere’s a link between exercise and mental alertness, in a similar way that happiness and exercise are related.

A lifetime of exercise can result in a sometimes astonishing elevation in cognitive performance, compared with those who are sedentary. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks.

Of course, exercise can also make us happier, as we’ve explored before:

If you start exercising, your brain recognizes this as a moment of stress. As your heart pressure increases, the brain thinks you are either fighting the enemy or fleeing from it. To protect yourself and your brain from stress, you release a protein called BDNF(Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). BDNF has a protective and also reparative element to your memory neurons and acts as a reset switch. That’s why, after exercising, we often feel so at ease, things are clear, and eventually we’re happy.

At the same time, endorphins, which also fight stress, are released in your brain. The main purpose of endorphins is this, writes researcher McGovern:

These endorphins tend to minimize the discomfort of exercise, block the feeling of pain, and are even associated with a feeling of euphoria.

10. You can make your brain think time is going slowly by doing new things.

Ever wished you didn’t find yourself saying “Where does the time go!” every June when you realize the year is half over? This is a neat trick that relates to how our brains perceive time. Once you know how it works, you can trick your brain into thinking time is moving more slowly.

Essentially, our brains take a whole bunch of information from our senses and organize it in a way that makes sense to us, before we ever perceive it. So what we think is our sense of time is actually just a whole bunch of information presented to us in a particular way, as determined by our brains:

When our brains receive new information, it doesn’t necessarily come in the proper order. This information needs to be reorganized and presented to us in a form we understand. When familiar information is processed, this doesn’t take much time at all. New information, however, is a bit slower and makes time feel elongated.

Even stranger, it isn’t just a single area of the brain that controls our time perception–it’s done by a whole bunch of brain areas, unlike our common five senses, which can each be pinpointed to a single, specific area.

When we receive lots of new information, it takes our brains a while to process it all. The longer this processing takes, the longer that period of time feels:

When we’re in life-threatening situations, for instance, “we remember the time as longer because we record more of the experience. Life-threatening experiences make us really pay attention, but we don’t gain superhuman powers of perception.”

The same thing happens when we hear enjoyable music, because “greater attention leads to perception of a longer period of time.”

Conversely, if your brain doesn’t have to process lots of new information, time seems to move faster, so the same amount of time will actually feel shorter than it would otherwise. This happens when you take in lots of information that’s familiar, because you’ve processed it before. Your brain doesn’t have to work very hard, so it processes time faster.

~ Curated by TME Pass The Idea (, December 6, 2013



Will the iGeneration Deliver an iRenaissance?

The connectedness of people resulting in the free exchange of ideas and the “intersection” of ideas from different fields and perspectives has been shown to be a key to creativity and innovation.

  • 12.03.13

Image: thinkpublic/photopin cc

Imagine a modern renaissance where a generation holds creativity and innovation as a common goal, has constant access to creative tools that provide instant feedback and encouragement, and are highly connected to each other for the exchange of ideas.  Imagine how many innovators could emerge from that generation.  Now imagine what the beginnings of this phenomenon would look like. Could it be that today’s young generations, growing up in a world of iphones, ipads, twitter, and instagram could be on the verge of their own iRenaissance?

Today’s youngest generation is growing up in an era much different than past generations.  Today, there are more positive conditions to produce people with the traits of innovators than at any other time in history.  These conditions include a culture that favors innovators, has readily available creative tools, and has connectedness on a grand scale.  If a past generation produced a handful of innovators like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, what would the world be like if today’s generation produced thousands of great innovators?


The connectedness of people resulting in the free exchange of ideas and the “intersection” of ideas from different fields and perspectives has been shown to be a key to creativity and innovation.  Author Frans Johansson discusses this intersection as a driver of innovation in his book The Medici Effect.  The book is named for the Medici family that gathered the great thinkers of Europe in Florence and is considered to have been a potential catalyst for the Renaissance.  Comparably, the gathering of millions of young people from around the globe through social media is like the Medici Effect on steroids.  In a recent Pew study, teenagers on Facebook have an average of 200 friends and those on Twitter have 79 followers.  Granted the collaborations on Facebook and Twitter may not produce works of art like the gatherings in Florence, but kids are experiencing many different viewpoints and exchanges of ideas and perspectives that could lead to a lifelong pursuit of the “intersection” of ideas.

Culture Shift

For the most part, Steve Jobs and other innovators of past generations, had to have courage to go against cultural norms.  They were, to borrow from Apple’s famous ad campaign, the “crazy ones.”  As young people, these innovators were called nerds, dropped out of college to follow their creative interests, and were often forced to work out of their garages for a lack of available resources.  How many others were as creative as Steve Jobs but lacked his courage and grit? What if they did not need the courage to be different?

The popularity of technology such as the iPhone and iPad, combined with young people’s reliance on social media, has resulted in a shift in the perception of innovators.  Stories about innovators are becoming part of pop culture, like stories about entertainers and sports figures were in the past.  Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr this year spurred stories of David Karp, CEO of Tumblr.  Karp, as folklore goes, started working in the industry at the young age of 14, started Tumblr at age 20, and is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars.  While Karp’s story is extraordinary, the stories of young innovators are numerous, from the teenage girl that started her own jewelry company, to the teenage boy who developed his own mobile news app.  These stories serve as inspiration for the younger generation.  With businesses like Facebook, Google, and Instagram, there are currently an unprecedented number of businesses started by young people that are at the forefront of the economy.

Comparatively, previous generations did not have the extensive examples of teenage entrepreneurs, and technology and innovators were generally not considered cool.  For example, compare the 1980s movie “Revenge of the Nerds” to the movie “The Social Network” or even to the TV show “The Big Bang Theory.”  Further, try showing a group of teens today a picture of Steve Jobs.  Most teens can identify him and are likely to be carrying one of his devices.  Could teens in past generations have recognized the innovators of their time?

Access to Creative Tools

Today’s youngest generation literally has the world in the palms of their hands.  In the Pew research study, 95% of teens were on-line and 78% had cell phones.  This reliance on technology is not only used for ease of communication, it also gives the younger generation the tools to show their creativity.  The moment inspiration strikes, kids can write out their thoughts, take a picture, or make a video, all within seconds. From clever twitter accounts to creative YouTube videos, younger generations have their pick of creative tools. This daily exercise of creativity will most likely have a lasting impact.  In a separate Pew study, 78% of teachers believed that digital technology encouraged student creativity and personal expression.

In comparison, previous generations had limited access to creative tools.  For example, photography, for past generations, was reserved for special occasions and hobbyists.  Today there are some 55 million photos published each day on Instagram.  While the vast majority of these photos are not of Ansel Adams quality, mass use of built-in cameras has given rise to a generation for whom photography is a way of life.

These creative tools are not just in abundance, the tools also allow for creative works to be shared with a massive audience.  In the past, creative efforts might be posted on the refrigerator door for the family to see and appreciate.  Now young people’s creative work is posted online for millions of people to view and provide feedback and encouragement.  According to YouTube, the site now reaches more people ages 18-34 than any cable network.   Consider the amount of great ideas for TV shows and movies of past generations that were not pursued due to the insurmountable odds of ever getting it produced.  Today, a child armed with an iPhone and an idea can reach millions of people across the world.

Endless Possibilities

We live in an exciting era of history.  At no other time, have young people been so inspired by innovators, had the tools to allow their ideas to become reality, or been able to share them with so many people.  Just imagine what millions of kids today, who are busy on their ipads and instagram accounts, will do in twenty years, if they keep creating every day.  They could make our current level of innovation look like child’s play.

Have your say: Will the newest generation produce the most innovators in history?

Michael O’Bryan is a former intelligence analyst and founder of the innovation consulting company 360 Thinking. 

~ Curated by TME Pass The Idea (, December 4, 2013